When extreme cold leaves, so do emergency shelters

When extreme cold leaves, so do emergency shelters

CHAMPAIGN — When the polar vortex brought subzero temperatures earlier this year, local agencies and nonprofits answered the call and made sure people with nowhere to go had a warm place to stay.

But lacking adequate funding and resources to keep those emergency warming shelters open beyond the throes of winter, they disappear with the extreme temperatures. And even a normal Midwestern winter is still pretty darn cold.

The vast majority of beds in Champaign County's shelters are offered only through transitional programs and are spoken for. Other beds fill up quickly.

While local agencies try to come up with a solution for people in emergency situations, there are dozens of homeless people in Champaign County who have no guaranteed place to keep warm overnight.

Dan Davies, who knows those people firsthand from his regular Salvation Army canteen route, says they make do. But where they stay is often a mystery.

"We try to find out, and they really don't want us to know," Davies said. "I don't know what they do. I know in the past there are some places that have let them stay."

Austin's Place has some beds for women and the Salvation Army has some for men. Occasionally churches will open their doors to an overnight stay, but they often have trouble finding enough volunteers to stay for a full night, Davies said.

The options grow thin fast. Police departments and jails have worked as temporary warming shelters, but it's usually not an all-night option. Some camp in the woods. Often they stay in abandoned buildings for shelter.

"There's absolutely no place," Davies said.

In recent years, local agencies have scrambled to provide emergency shelters, especially for families. Right now, there is no place in Champaign County for a homeless family to stay together, but officials are hoping that will change soon.

Housing adults is one thing. Accommodating children is another.

"When you add children to the mix, that comes with a whole new set of issues and challenges," said Kerri Spear, the city's neighborhood programs manager.

That need became apparent in the 1990s as the population of homeless children went on the rise, according to a city report. City and nonprofit officials are working with the Housing Authority of Champaign County and hope to open an emergency family shelter near Third and Park streets in Champaign later this year.

But "there are many pieces that still have to fit in place," said Beverly Baker, the director of community impact for the United Way of Champaign County. To this point, the agencies have faced financial obstacles.

"The biggest hurdle has been finding a funding source that is sustainable so that the shelter's not always in crisis mode," Baker said.

Spear said "the dollars just keep shrinking" for local agencies, and until recent years, the need has gone largely unaddressed. Several years ago, the city set aside $50,000 in seed money to get the ball rolling on an emergency family shelter.

"Somebody had to put their foot down and say we're going to help fund this," Spear said. "We did that."

In the intervening time, officials have tried to fill the gap with temporary programs. From February through August 2013, with $75,000 in funding from the United Way and administration by the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission, motel vouchers were offered to families which, for one reason or another, suddenly needed a place to stay.

During those months, 32 families — 43 adults and 68 children — were housed with the vouchers. Of those, 26 families were able to transition into stable housing. According to Baker, 70 households were denied assistance because the program was at capacity.

Baker said that program is being offered again this year, and they hope it will hold the community over until the permanent emergency family shelter opens.

Homelessness is especially hard on children — it can affect their performance in school, for one thing.

"With our limited resources I think we really have to look at our most vulnerable population," Spear said.

With a lot of focus on the most vulnerable, another gap remains open for now. Because most space available in Champaign County homeless shelters for individual adults is through transitional programs, beds don't often open up.

"There is a gap," Baker said. "That is something that service providers have been talking about, and we've fortunately had some very caring community members that have stepped up and in working with their church have pieced something together."

Baker said it's not a new problem, but it is one that has started to gather a lot of attention lately. It does not look like there will be a good solution this winter, but she said "it's given everybody some food for thought" as they start thinking about next winter.

"This was a pretty extreme stretch for several weeks that really just brought it into perspective for people and into the community's viewpoint," Baker said.

This is an updated version of the story which includes information not previously available about the 2013 motel vouchers.

Sections (2):News, Local
Topics (1):Social Services


News-Gazette.com embraces discussion of both community and world issues. We welcome you to contribute your ideas, opinions and comments, but we ask that you avoid personal attacks, vulgarity and hate speech. We reserve the right to remove any comment at our discretion, and we will block repeat offenders' accounts. To post comments, you must first be a registered user, and your username will appear with any comment you post. Happy posting.

Login or register to post comments

Sid Saltfork wrote on February 22, 2014 at 8:02 am

Maybe, the largest employer in C-U will step forward?  A public funded employer with a multitude of buildings surely could find some empty space.  One that trains people for social service surely could find some volunteers.  A partnership between that employer, and the communities could help the homeless with children at least.

If Illinois is going to give out tax incentives to corporations, each of those corporations could provide a small amount to fund a permanent shelter locally.  At least, they could provide corporate stocking caps.  Heck, the permanent shelter could even have a corporate name on it.  The shelter does not have to be on public-corporate property.  That way the homeless would not be trespassing.

The wealth for a permanent homeless shelter is available.  Why should corporate naming rights be used only for sports facilities?  What a great PR image could be created with the partnership of communities, public funded institutions, and corporations.  Well... that is probably a radical idea though.  After all, someone once said something about the poor will always be amongst us; and something about a camel passing through the eye of a needle, and a rich man going to heaven.  Yeah.. it is a radical idea.

sweet caroline wrote on February 22, 2014 at 9:02 pm

Sid, I keep telling you that you need to run for public office.  Your ideas make a lot more sense than most of the politicians could ever come up with!

Sid Saltfork wrote on February 24, 2014 at 12:02 pm

Thank you again for saying that; but I have a morality issue.  I know right from wrong.  Therefore, it would be a hinderance in job performance.

Dogsrule732 wrote on February 22, 2014 at 8:02 am

What are other communities doing? Do we have a Homeless Coalition comprised of city officials, univerisity advisors and social service agencies who work directly with these individuals? Can we use FEMA trailers or CHUs (Containerized Housing Units) similar to what the troops are living in over in Afghanistan and Iraq? Would it be possible to open these types of units during the extreme weather conditions only? How about handing out portable tents that are more technologically advanced than cardboard boxes and easier to carry? 

Families do not have options to stay together, unless a social service agency has a few dollars to spare for an overnight accomodation at a hotel. This typically is only for a few nights. We need a better solution for those who are displaced by fire, flood, etc. People do not choose to be homeless. Circumstances often change for people who are most at risk. If you are living at or below the poverty line and unexpectedly lose your home, there is no extra money available for relocation fees, etc. Most importantly, not everyone has someone to turn to. Often, individuals do not have another family member or friend nearby that can help them. At times, if they do, there is no space in their home to take in another person. 

We need to work harder to solve this problem. This community is full of the most brillant minds in the world. Surely through innovation or creativity we can find a better way to help our fellow human beings. 

pattsi wrote on February 22, 2014 at 11:02 am

Two very concrete comments with some solid suggestions. Thanks for the postings.

Local Yocal wrote on February 28, 2014 at 4:02 pm
Profile Picture

But, but, but, we've got all this "economic development", $160 million dollar skyboxes, and restaurants 'n' stuff. What's going on? Doesn't anybody want to win Big Ten Championships?

You people act like you want to lead the nation in compassion and do-goody junk. Baskets and touchdowns is where it's at, kids, with a side order of alcohol plus a hot plate of food in a luxury hotel room or luxury high rise apartment. That way, profits head out of town to corporate headquarters, the contractor is from out-of-town and the employees who build it don't live here either so they can spend their paychecks elsewhere, and the "jobs" left behind are a few little minimum wage jobs to serve out-of-town guests and transitory students who don't stay here or give-a-damn. Sooooo sustainable!

The homeless are just lazy. Mayor Jerry Schweighart says if we'd quit accomodating them, they would leave. The homeless do that, you know, leave towns to mooch in other ones. Yahoo!

The Jack Daniels Drop In Center would be freakin' cool, though.